Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright’s The Native Son And Black Boy
1.1 Background to the Study
From the vernacular tradition, racism and oppression have been pervasive themes in American literature, particularly in the works of Black American authors. According to Balogun, James (25), the history of slavery, segregation, and systemic discrimination has had a profound impact on the lives of Black Americans, and this history is reflected in the literature they have produced.
This study will explore the ways in which Black American authors have addressed issues of racism and oppression in their works, and how these themes have evolved over time. The early works of Black American authors often dealt with the harsh realities of slavery and its aftermath. These works were often written in the context of the abolitionist movement, and were intended to expose the brutal realities of slavery and to advocate for its abolition. One notable example of this type of literature is the narrative of Frederick Douglass, who wrote about his own experiences as a slave in his autobiography.
Equally, JanMohamed, Abdul (103) opine that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s saw a flowering of Black American literature, with authors such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen producing works that explored the experiences of Black Americans in the urban North. These authors often wrote about the tensions between the old world of the South and the new world of the North, and the challenges faced by Black Americans in the urban environment.
Wilson, Jamie (207) is of the opinion that the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s also had an impact on Black American literature, as authors such as Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez began to explore the themes of Black Nationalism and self-determination. These authors often wrote about the need for Black Americans to assert their own cultural identity and to reject the dominant white culture.
Racism in literary studies is defined by Wikipedia as the belief of genetic factors which constitute race and are the primary determinants of human traits and capacities which racial differences produces an inherent superiority of a particular race. Racism effects are called racial discrimination. Although the term racism usually denotes race based on prejudice, violence, dislike, discrimination or oppression.
Racism is also defined simply as a reflection of the economic system and its cultural, ethnic and political ways. The concept of racism is derived from the word race and it is believed that one racial or ethnic group is inferior to another and the unequal treatment is therefore justified. Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame True defined racism as “A prediction of decision and policies on consideration of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group”. (45)
On the other hand, oppression is defined by the encyclopedia as torture or degrading treatment and the use of threat or violence. It is also the exercise of power/authority in a burden, cruel or unjust manner. Oppression is also defined by Wikipedia as an act or instance of oppressing the state of being oppressed and the feeling of being heavily burdened; mentally or physically by troubles adverse conditions and anxiety.
According to Washington, Mary (102) Black Boy is a classic of American autobiograplay a subtly crafted narrative of Richard Wright’s journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow south. An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and southern in American (5).
Racism as a problem among individuals is a familiar topic in literature. Black Boy, however, explores racism not only as an odious belief held by odious people but also as an insidious problem knit into the very fabric of society as a whole. Wright portrays characters such as Olin and Pease as evil people, but also and more chillingly as bit players in a vast drama of hatred, fear, and oppression. For Richard, the true problem of racism is not simply that it exists, but that its roots in American culture are so deep it is doubtful whether these roots can be destroyed without destroying the culture itself
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a profound impact on Black American literature, as authors began to address the issues of racism and oppression in a more overt and politically charged manner. Authors such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison wrote about the struggles of Black Americans for equality and justice, and the need for Black Americans to assert their own voices and perspectives.
It was on this backdrop that this research seeks to examine racism and oppression in African American literature using the work of Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy to portray the level of inhumane treatment, oppression, social stratifications done on the black just because of their skin colour and the belief that there are decadence of African race. The experiences of the blacks recounted by Richard Wright in Native Son and Black Boy will therefore by analysed to expose the themes of racism and oppression as aspect of the American society.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
Racism and oppression have been enduring themes in African American literature, reflecting the harsh realities of systemic discrimination and societal biases. This research centers on the seminal works of Richard Wright, specifically The Native Son and Black Boy as illuminating lenses through which we can explore the complex interplay of race, identity, and societal constraints in mid-20th century America. Wright’s narratives serve as powerful vehicles for unraveling the multifaceted layers of oppression faced by African Americans during a tumultuous period, offering profound insights into the psychological, social, and political dimensions of their experiences.
By situating Wright’s works within their historical context, this research aims to provide a deeper understanding of the socio-political landscape that shaped the narratives. Through a comparative approach, the study will explore the resonance of these themes in the broader discourse on the African American experience during the mid-20th century.
However, the problem created by racism and oppression could be traced to be the major factor behind most Black literature through the ages. In America, this gave rise to a new form of literary expression known as Black American literature or African Americans Literature. The main concern of this sub-genre of literature is to redeem the face of the black man and his culture from the negative to a more positive direction. Therefore, this study seeks to reveal the bad treatments the blacks Americans receive from the hands of the whites.
1.3 Objectives of the Study
The aim of this study will be to examine and analyze the themes of racism and oppression in African American literature, with a specific focus on Richard Wright’s two novels, The Native Son and Black Boy. By exploring the representation of racial discrimination and the experiences of African Americans in these works, the study seeks to shed light on the impact of these themes on the development of African American literature and the broader American society. However, the objectives of this study will be specifically:
- To examine various cases of racism and oppression of the black Americans in Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy.
- To analyze the narrative techniques employed by Richard Wright in The Native Son and Black Boy to depict the pervasive nature of racism and oppression in Black American society.
- To explore the role of societal structures and institutions in perpetuating racial injustice as portrayed in the selected works.
- To examine the ways in which the protagonists in The Native Son and Black Boy navigate and respond to systemic racism, providing insights into their psychological and emotional struggles.
- To situate Wright’s works within the historical context of mid-20th century America, drawing comparisons to the broader socio-political landscape and contributing to a comprehensive understanding of the African American experience.
1.4 Significance of the Study
This research is significant in its potential to enrich our understanding of the profound impact of racism on individual lives and the broader African American community. By honing in on the works of Richard Wright, this study aims to contribute valuable insights to the fields of literature, history, and sociology, offering a nuanced exploration of the complexities of racial injustice. The findings of this research are anticipated to provide a foundation for future studies on Black American literature and its role in shaping our understanding of societal challenges and the quest for justice.
1.5 Scope and Delimitation
The scope of this research shall be within the confinement of the primary selected texts (Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy) and shall be delimited to the topic under research.
1.6 Research Methodology
This research is a qualitative research, and will relies on textual analysis of the selected texts Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy, which will serve as primary sources of data collection for the study while other relevant materials shall be gotten from internet and library materials which will form the secondary sources of data. The texts are purposively selected based on their relevant contents.
1.7 Theoretical Framework: New Historicism
The theoretical model that will be adopted as the theoretical framework for this study shall be Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism. The main premise of New Historicists is to highlight the subversive forces of marginalized community of the society like female, bourgeoisie and ethnic communities of Non-European origin. It may be assumed that New Historicism shares the tenet of Marxism as it tries to find out the conflict between the suppressed and the dominant like that of Capitalist and Proletariat.
The whole social structure revolves round the problem of production and its circulation, but Cultural Materialists extend it towards the larger web of culture. New Historicists’ main motive is to find out the subversive voices in literary text so that society may be awakened regarding the exploitation of marginalized community: New Historicist looked for a more dynamic relationship between texts and their societies. If a society could be shown to form a text, then one could also show that texts in turn reshaped from which they came.
New Historicism is a literary movement that reflects the legacy of Marxism and stemmed as a response to formalism. New historicism is interested in reading a piece of text in light of its political and social context. Unlike historicist before them, they don’t see history as just background information for the text, rather they see it as the key piece of information that the literature is conveying. As such, they do not believe that literature should be discussed or understood in term of universal themes. New Historicism is concerned with power structure, circulation, political function, author’s background, and what really happened. They reject the close reading of formalist.
The main features of new historicism is that they critic into account the entire historical situation surrounding the time the work was published. This includes the predominant social and political situation. There was multiple notable proponent of new historicism. Some of them are: Stephen Greenblatt; Stephen Greenblatt is credited with pioneering new historicism.
His book The Power of Form in the English Renaissance is where he first used the term, new historicism. He claimed that literary criticism is always historical. Another person is Fredric Jameson: Jameson advised literary critics to always pay attention to historical context in which a work was produced. He is known by the dictate to “Always historicise”. Alan Liu is another notable proponent. He claimed that new historicist uses the entire world as a text. Michael Foucault in his own part claimed that knowledge is determined by system that are defined not just by cohesiveness but by ruptures.
New Historicists are of the opinion that literature should give voice to subaltern group of society. “The strategy of ‘Thick description’ and the local reading of power relationship could be seen subaltern studies and post-colonial approaches.
New Historicism, a literary theory emphasizing the interplay between literature and historical context, proves valuable in analyzing “Racism and Oppression in African American Literature: A Study of Richard Wright’s ‘The Native Son’ and ‘Black Boy.'” This approach prompts examination of the historical backdrop, delving into the Great Migration, Jim Crow laws, and prevalent racial tensions of the early to mid-20th century America. New Historicism’s focus on power relations aids in dissecting how racism and oppression are portrayed in Wright’s works, exploring the dynamics between racial and social groups and their impact on characters.
Moreover, the theory’s emphasis on cultural discourses prompts analysis of how the novels contribute to or challenge prevailing narratives about race, identity, and social order. Richard Wright’s personal experiences and engagement with his era’s socio-political climate, emphasizing authorial agency, play a role in shaping the portrayal of racism and oppression.
The concept of intertextuality encourages exploration of how ‘The Native Son’ and ‘Black Boy’ engage with other texts and historical events related to racism and oppression. By applying New Historicism, a nuanced understanding emerges, revealing the intricate connections between these literary works and the historical period they navigate. It was on this premise that the theory became necessary to portray the nature of stigmatization, oppression due to skin colour done on the blacks Americans in the selected work of Richard Wright (The Native Son and Black Boy).
1.9 Bio-Data of the Author
Richard Nathaniel Wright, born on September 4, 1908, in Mississippi, was a prominent American author renowned for his impactful contributions to literature. His extensive body of work, spanning novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction, consistently addressed racial themes, particularly the struggles faced by African Americans in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, characterized by discrimination and violence. Wright’s upbringing at Rucker’s Plantation, marked by poverty and familial instability after his father’s departure, profoundly influenced his perspective on racial injustice.
Raised by his mother and grandparents, who had experienced slavery, Wright encountered adversity from an early age. Despite a disrupted education, he exhibited literary talent and published his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” at just 15. Throughout his life, Wright grappled with the oppressive influence of religion, a theme that permeated his writings and reflected his own struggles against familial attempts at control.
Wright’s literary prowess earned him recognition and accolades. Notably, he received the Spingarn Medal in 1941 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939. In 2009, he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, solidifying his enduring impact on American literature. Posthumously, Wright was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, underscoring his lasting legacy.
Among his most celebrated works are Native Son, Black Boy, Uncle Tom’s Children, and The Outsider. Additionally, Wright explored non-fiction themes in works like Black Power and 12 Million Black Voices. His influence extended beyond traditional genres to include essays and poetry, showcasing the breadth of his literary talent. Despite an untimely death in 1960, Richard Wright’s contributions continue to shape discussions on race, earning him a lasting place in American literary history.